New drug can increase life for Melanoma patients

June 23, 2010 3:12:57 PM PDT
A new treatment can extend the life of patients with melanoma skin cancer, which has spread to other parts of the body.

The breakthrough treatment came from a lab. Bruce Shewmaker, who is 64 years old, and his family put their fate in the lab's hands. In 2000, Shewmaker found a malignant melanoma.

"It started with just a blemish on my foot that had been there for 10 years and ? one day it changed," Shewmaker said.

The cancer was removed surgically and he had 6 good years. However, by 2006, the cancer returned and was found in his lungs. Chemotherapy and other treatments failed. Each failure was a blow to Shewmaker.

"It's hard to maintain your hope that you're going to get through this," he said.

Getting through late stage cancer was also the hope of Dr. Jim Allison of Memorial Sloan Kettering Center. He did experiments in mice with late stage melanoma, using a new untested drug. After some disappointments, one day he was startled.

"In one group of mice the tumors quit growing and it was a eureka moment for sure, it was very exciting," he said.

Dr. Allison's experiments led to a drug for humans called Ipilimumab, IPI for short.

The drug doesn't work by killing the cancer like chemotherapy. Instead, it triggers the body's own immune system to go out and kill the cancer.

In 20-30 percent of patients, the drug shrinks the cancer or makes it disappear. It can extend lives. It's not clear which patients will respond, as there is no test for that yet. When it's approved, it will probably be used for all late stage melanoma patients.

"I see the treatment becoming part of combination therapies where this drug provides the durability, the long center term benefit," said Dr. Jedd Wolchok, of Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center.

On an x-ray of Shewmaker's chest, the benefit is clear. He had a big ball of cancer cells before treatment and a clear x-ray afterward.

"The doctors were was relief and it was hope, " said Patricia Shewmaker, Shewmaker's wife.

The Shewmaker family was excited about the results.

"Our family has always had hope during these ten years but i think that it was the Ipi that made the miracle actually happen," said Ellen Shewmaker. Shewmaker's daughter.

It's a miracle in the course of Shewmaker's illness, he is not in the clear just yet. He's checked with scans on a regular basis, that look for the cancer's return.

Remember that only 20-30 percent of advanced melanoma patients respond as Shewmaker's did. Unfortunately, in the majority of cases the disease continues. The drug Ipi is not yet Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved, and is available only in drug trial programs.